Vitskøl Abbey (Vitskøl Kloster, Vitae Schola, meaning 'school of life') is a former Cistercian monastery and one of the oldest existing monastic complexes in northern Europe. Vitskøl Abbey was founded by Cistercian monks under Abbot Henrik while in exile from Varnhem Abbey in Sweden during a conflict with Queen Christina Björnsdotter of Sweden. The monks from Varnhem were later replaced by monks from Esrum Abbey, which is reckoned the mother house of Vitskøl.
It stood on an ancient trade route through north central Denmark on land given to the Cistercians by King Valdemar I the Great after his victory over King Sweyn III at the Battle of Grathe Heath, with the intent of building the largest church in Scandinavia. The exact date of the foundation is not known, but work on the buildings commenced in 1158.
As early as 1165 the community of Vitskøl had grown sufficiently to attempt to found a daughter house at Sabro. The soil conditions prevented the monks from farming successfully and they moved to Sminge, but faced the same conditions and moved on to the recently abandoned Veng Abbey, which disputes about land claims forced them to leave. They next attempted to settle on Kalvø Island in Skanderborg Lake, but it too failed because of the poor soil. Lastly the monks moved to the site of Øm Abbey, which succeeded.
The buildings at Vitskøl were in the usual Cistercian layout, but the cruciform church, with three aisles, a transept and an apse, was intended to be unusually large, in accordance with the founder's wishes. Work on the choir and transept continued until 1287 when a fire destroyed much of the abbey. Another feature of the early building was a large cloister with several apses built into it, a local extravagance. Eventually the work on the great church was abandoned, and a smaller abbey church was built to take care of the needs of the community.
With royal protection and the gifts of the local nobility, the abbey became the major landowner in the area, as well as a centre of cultural life and economy. The abbey also owned the island of Livø and had the right to hold a market on Trend Strand; trade and communication was further encouraged by the canal that joined the present Bjørnsholm Å to Vilsted Sø. Vitskøl also became particularly well known for its school. The abbey reached its high point in the 14th century.
When during the Reformation Denmark became officially Lutheran in October 1536, Vitskøl Abbey became crown property, but remained in operation for a while, although it was forbidden to accept any new monks. The last monks left in 1563. In 1573 the estate was given to Bjørn Andersen, a powerful noble, after whom it was renamed Bjørnsholm, who converted two of the conventual buildings for residential use.
The church remained in use as the parish church until the early 17th century, when it was deemed too large to keep in repair, at which point the west wing of the abbey was converted to a parish church instead. The abbey church was finally abandoned in 1668, and was used by local people as a quarry for building materials.
The remaining abbey buildings have now been restored and are used for conferences and educational purposes. The remaining ruins, consisting of foundation stones and a few remnants of the abbey church, have been given protected status and stabilized.
A reminder of the abbey's past can be found in the abbey herb garden. The abandoned gardens were allowed to grow wild and researchers found that many of the plants used by monks in the distant past could still be found on the abbey grounds. The gardens have been partially restored by local organizations and used for plant research.References:
Steinvikholm Castle is an island fortress built between 1525 to 1532 by Norway's last Catholic archbishop, Olav Engelbrektsson. Steinvikholm castle became the most powerful fortification by the time it was built, and it is the largest construction raised in the Norwegian Middle Ages.
The castle occupies about half of the land on the rocky island. The absence of a spring meant that fresh water had to be brought from the mainland. A wooden bridge served as the only way to the island other than boat. Although the castle design was common across Europe in 1525, its medieval design was becoming obsolete because of the improved siege firepower offered by gunpowder and cannons.
The castle was constructed after Olav Engelbrektsson returned from a meeting with the Pope in Rome, presumably in anticipation of impending military-religious conflict. As Archbishop Engelbrektsson's resistance to the encroachment of Danish rule escalated, first with Frederick I of Denmark and his successor Christian III of Denmark, Steinvikholm Castle and Nidarholm Abbey became the Catholic Church's military strongholds in Norway. In April 1537, the Danish-Norwegian Reformation succeeded in driving the archbishop from the castle into exile in Lier in the Netherlands (now in Belgium), where he died on 7 February 1538. At the castle the archbishop left behind St. Olav's shrine and other treasures from Nidaros Cathedral (Trondheim). The original coffin containing St. Olav's body remained at Steinvikholm until it was returned to Nidaros Cathedral in 1564. Since 1568 St. Olav's grave in Nidaros has been unknown.
From the 17th to 19th century, the island was used as a quarry and some of its masonry was sold and removed from the site. This activity was condoned by the Danish-Norwegian authorities as a way of eliminating a monument to the opposition of the Danish–Norwegian Union.
Steinvikholm fort is owned and operated today by The society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments. The island has been the site of the midnight opera which details the life and struggles of the archbishop. The opera is held in August annually. The opera is organized by Steinvikholm Musikkteater since the beginning in 1993.